No One Is Here Except All of Us

I’m not sure what to make of this novel by Ramona Ausubel. It has the feeling of a fairy tale, but one in which the horrors are real. It’s a tribute to the power of storytelling, but it also exposes the limits of the tales we tell. It’s a strange book.

The book is set mostly in a tiny Romanian village called Zalischik. When the novel begins, it’s 1939, and the Jewish villagers are just starting to hear whispers of war. What to do? Their people have moved on again and again, and they don’t want to move anymore. So they decide to create a world where they don’t have to move, where only they exist, and where they can start again.

It’s a pretty picture, and it fills the villagers with hope. But making a new world means giving up the old one, which most aren’t entirely willing to do, regardless of what they say aloud. And, of course, the new world still contains human selfishness and sickness. It takes a while to settle on rules that limit harm, and the work requires some compromises, including the breaking up of a family. The fantasy holds for years—long enough for the novel’s narrator, Lena, to marry and have children in this new world.

Eventually, however, the outside world intervenes, and Lena must learn to live in a bigger world. The story has fallen apart, but the story continues, too. As one character says, “There is always a story. No matter what we do, it can’t help but unfold.” It’s just that there’s no way to totally control how it unfolds.

The rest of the book involves characters telling stories to each other, sometimes lying to get what they want. But the lies are also a sort of kindness, sometimes protecting people from pain. It’s complicated. And the story Lena tells herself is one of remembrance, so that she doesn’t forget who she is and where she is from. The story may keep unfolding in ways she doesn’t want, but she can hold on to her truth. Or, she can choose to elide the horrors she’s better off forgetting so that she can focus on the good around her.

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Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 4 Comments

Our Souls At Night

our souls at nightAddie Moore and Louis Waters have lived in the small town of Holt, Colorado for years. They’ve known of each other for decades, the superficial facts of each other’s lives, in the way of small towns, but have never been friends. But one day, Addie comes to Louis’s door and asks — well — if he would like to come over to her house at night and sleep with her. Just sleep, she says, and talk. Nights are so lonely, she has trouble sleeping. “But I think I could sleep again if there were someone else in bed with me.” she says. “Someone nice. The closeness of that. Talking in the night, in the dark.”

That’s how their relationship begins: Louis showers, and shaves, and clips his toenails, and brushes his teeth, and brings over his pajamas in a paper bag, and they… sleep together. But the intimacy and tenderness of lying together in the dark and telling each other about their lives — the happy times, the disappointments, the grief and loss, the ways their lives did, and didn’t, work out the way they hoped or imagined — deepens and enriches their lives. They find themselves happy, and happier, and more so because they don’t take it for granted.

Soon, Addie’s son Gene, who is having problems with his wife, brings Addie’s grandson Jamie to stay with them for a while. Jamie is six, and Addie and Louis fold him into their routine with no problem, as another piece of gentle happiness. They get a dog. They go camping. They get a baseball bat and gloves for all three of them, and they go see a game.  And every night, they’re together. It’s simple — absolutely simple — but the depth of feeling behind it is as complicated as every human heart.

I was trying to tell my husband about this book, because I found it so moving. He looked at me with a raised eyebrow and said, “Isn’t it sappy?” I hadn’t even thought of that possibility until that moment. This book could easily have been dripping with sentiment — new love! second chances! a six-year-old lisping platitudes, and his dog! — but it just isn’t. Kent Haruf’s prose is minimalist, for one thing, stripped bare of platitudes or twee quirks. It has some twists of wry humor, and one unexpected meta-reference, which was fun. But the most important thing is that it acknowledges the essential messiness of life. Addie and Louis have both been through loss, pain, and failure of connection with the most important people in their lives. Sometimes that was someone else’s fault, and sometimes their own. In bed, in the dark, next to each other, they can admit these things, admit the anguish, and be forgiven. The ending of the book is the same. I won’t specify the pain that occurs in the last 20 pages or so, but it’s hard to read. Still, hope blossoms out in human connection and forgiveness.

I read Our Souls At Night in an afternoon, and afterward I felt slightly stunned. I was so deeply drawn in, like sitting on the bottom of a pool, with that thick wavering light. This was such a lovely book, and I’m very grateful to Teresa for prompting me to read it for our Book Swap.

Posted in Fiction | 15 Comments

Death at La Fenice

death at la feniceDonna Leon began writing her series of Venetian police procedurals when I was in college (1992, if you’re counting) and has written one every single year since then. (Twenty-seven of them. Whew.) Death at La Fenice is the first of them, and the first one I’ve ever read, despite recommendations especially from my father, who loves this series.

Police commissioner Guido Brunetti has seen a lot of death, and so has the famous old La Fenice opera house. But when Maestro Wellauer is killed with cyanide in his coffee, both of them prove capable of being scandalized. Wellauer was a harsh, rigorous, prejudiced man who had a surprising number of enemies. Which of them actually had motive for murder? Brunetti interviews divas, lovers, wives, scholars of Chinese history, and gossips, usually over amazing Italian food and wine, as he circles closer to the truth.

This is a fairly slow-paced murder mystery with a not-exactly unpredictable ending, and the writing is workmanlike (except for the food, which is rhapsodic.) But my friend Stacey helped me see that this book is a window into the Italian way of life. Brunetti is surrounded by Byzantine bureaucracy, a vain and incompetent superior, and sergeants who are essentially thick-headed goons. He is dealing with a set of laws that are inconsistent and sometimes incomprehensible. His suspects are well aware of this, and they are carving out their own way in the world, each with their own idea of justice and fairness. How can Brunetti act within the law, as an arm of the law, and bring about justice in an unjust situation?

There are several small examples of this sprinkled through the book. One particularly endearing one is when Brunetti visits an American living in Venice. She has remodeled her 15th-century apartment to include beautiful skylights, and he asks, amazed, how she got permission from the tangled city bureaucracy. She tells him that she simply went ahead and did it and then sent to the city planners to ask how much the fine would be. Brunetti, gobsmacked, laughs to himself. A Venetian would never do such a thing.

I’ll probably read at least one more of these mysteries and see if Brunetti remains an island in a sea of incompetence or whether he gets some partners he can work with. But I did enjoy this, as a snapshot of Venice.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | Leave a comment

Life with a Star

Josef Roubicek, a former bank clerk, lives alone in an empty house. He’s destroyed almost everything he owns because he doesn’t want “them” to get anything of his. So, now, he scrapes by, moment to moment, day to day, eating the meager rations he’s allowed, doing the jobs assigned to him, dreaming of his former lover, and wondering what will happen when he, inevitably, is called up to join a transport.

Czech author Jiří Weil was a Jewish man in hiding during World War II. His 1949 novel, Life with a Star, translated by Rita Klímová with Roslyn Schloss, presents an excruciatingly grim picture of daily life during those years, as experienced by someone who has  been stripped of everything he has, yet still, somehow, has more to lose. The novel doesn’t go into detail about the politics of the time, nor does it spell out each and every indignity the Jews of Prague faced. It’s the experience of one man, and this particular man is both trying to be realistic about his situation and trying to ignore the details. He knows his choices are limited and his death perhaps certain, but he can’t be bothered to memorize every rule.

The book contains some remarkable passages about the German torment of Jews, the most striking perhaps being the comparison of the transports and work camps to a circus. Josef begins with his happy recollections of being a spectator at the circus, and then gets introspective:

When I watched the seals pushing a ball with their snouts I didn’t know it was a bad thing to be an animal in the circus. It never occurred to me that it was something seals did not usually do. I had also never seen a dog walk on two feet, with a little hinting cap on his head and a gun over his shoulder. But it was amusing to look at him as he walked around the circus arena. The circus was a wonderful, exciting place, where thing happened that I had never seen. It was thrilling to sit comfortably on the wooden bench and watch the acrobats.

But when I myself was to perform in the circus, I didn’t like to remember the sound of the whip and the cries of the tamers. I didn’t want to remember the horses running around and around or the dog jumping through a large hoop covered with paper, I wouldn’t life my head to look at the ropes under the ceiling when I myself had to walk a tightrope and look down at the gaping faces.

To “them” (the only term Weil uses to refer to the Nazis in the novel), imprisonment, torment, and murder of Jews is an entertainment. They are forced to act against their nature to avoid immediate punishment.

In other sections, Josef remembers his past life, though the details are fragmentary. Most of the time, he just takes the next step in front of him.

For much of the novel, he lavishes his concern on a stray cat he names Tomas who turns up as his dilapidated shell of a home. Jews are not allowed pets, but he makes a friend of Tomas, feeding him tiny scraps from his meager meals and coming to love the feeling of his soft fur up against him each morning as he wakes. He has nothing, but he’s willing to give what little he has to sustain this little life.

By the end of the book, this willingness to sacrifice for another becomes important as Josef debates whether to allow some friends to help him hide when he is summoned to join a transport to the camps. His friends want to do it; they’ve done it for others, and they say they know what to do. But Josef knows that getting caught would mean death for them. Still, life wants to go on, and perhaps helping others and allowing them to help us is the only way to persevere. It’s not just about literal survival but about survival of the soul and spirit.

Weil doesn’t present the dilemma in such didactic terms, however. This is not a book that explains itself. It just puts you there, in the midst of it, having to figure out, with Josef, what the big questions are and what the right answers are when there seem to be nothing left.

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Permanent Rose

permanent roseWhen Rose Casson was born, it seemed for a while that she might not stay in this world. Her older siblings were named for paint colors (Cadmium, Saffron, Indigo), and so Rose’s mother, Eve, wanted to find the right name for a fragile baby. Permanent Rose, she thought, that’s it. And that’s what (to Bill’s utter chagrin) went on the birth certificate and all subsequent documentation. And Rose stayed, and was as firm about it as could possibly be desired.

In this installment of the Casson family saga, people are still recovering from the emotional earthquake that occurred in the last book, Indigo’s Star. Tom, the American best friend of Indigo and Rose, has been unceremoniously whisked off to the United States to be with his fragile baby sister, and they don’t have a way to contact him. This has left a howling void, with which Indigo seems to be coping and with which Rose is Not Coping At All. David, who bullied Indigo just last school year but has now reformed in a lumpy, genial, clumsy sort of way, wants to be friends; Indigo cautiously thinks perhaps, and Rose thinks NO WAY. (David knows misbehavior based on heartbreak better than Rose wishes he did.) Saffron and Sarah are searching for Saffron’s biological father, and (hilariously) “cultivating hearts of stone.” And Caddy is engaged to darling Michael, and having second, and third, and fourth thoughts about it.

The chaos of the Cassons is the joy of them. At first, it looks like they’re all individual ping-pong balls bouncing around, doing their own thing in isolation. In this book in particular, we see most situations from Rose’s perspective, and she has such a different perspective from most people that it’s easy to imagine her just going her own way alone. But in fact, this family is deeply connected, not just to each other, but to friends like Tom and Sarah and darling Michael (and, reluctantly, David.) They extend love and gifts and terrible meals and drinks and disastrous birthday cakes and guinea pigs and sometimes transatlantic flights. People don’t get lost with the Cassons. They get found.

One of the parts I liked best about this book was Rose’s effort to understand reading. Rose is an artist — a real artist, unlike her father, and not very like her mother either. She sees the world in graphic terms. She can’t read well at all; the words get all squiggly and she gets limply bored at the sight of a page. But Indigo hooks her by reading bits of the Morte d’Arthur aloud to her, and she tries and tries and tries to get at it herself. Where are the pictures that come alive in her head? She can’t find them. But she wants them. And what Rose wants, Rose gets.

If you haven’t read this series yet, I don’t know what you’re waiting for. It’s the loveliest thing. If you read them, tell me your take on Bill. I haven’t got a grip on him yet. But do read them, do.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction | 10 Comments

The Glass Palace

glass palaceEver since I read the Ibis trilogy (well, the first two-thirds of it!), I’ve been wanting to read more by Amitav Ghosh. I finally picked up The Glass Palace at the library, but I felt a bit hesitant. This book is about three generations of two families in Burma, India, and Malaya around the turn of the 20th century. Was it going to be nothing but a long slog of poverty, sadness, and war?

But I should have had more faith. Ghosh is one of the best authors I know for taking an absolutely Dickensian cast of characters and making them burst with life. Each person in this novel — and there are many of them — is easy to connect to and keep track of, and I cared about their fates. Ghosh doesn’t confine himself to one country, one language, one social class or religion, to men or women, to the old or the young or to any one point of view, and his books are so, so rich for it.

The book begins with the British invasion of Burma in 1885, over the desire for Burma’s rich natural resource of teak. The Royal Family is sent into exile in India at Ratnagiri, and only a single member of their household, Dolly, is faithful enough — or helpless enough — to stay with the powerless King and Queen. Just before Dolly leaves Burma, she has a brief encounter with an impoverished young Indian teak-worker who has been struck by her beauty: Rajkumar. He cannot forget her, and years later, as a rich timber exporter, he comes to find her at Ratnagiri. Their love, and their children, provide one long thread that spools through the story.

You can’t write historical fiction about Burma and India during the twentieth century without coming face to face with imperialism and independence. Ghosh does a beautiful job of presenting this from different characters’ viewpoints (only one of which, a minor character, is white.) The most interesting struggle is between two brothers, Dinu and Arjun. Dinu is shy and reclusive, with an artistic temperament. He sees both the British and the Japanese and Germans as equally bad; for him, independence is the only possible solution, but it’s an intellectual solution. Arjun, on the other hand, a generous and genial young man, joined the army just out of school. He has tremendous loyalty to his British CO, and to all the customs of the British army that trained Indian soldiers of every caste and religion to fight and subdue their fellow Indians. He doesn’t want to see himself as a pawn in someone else’s game — who does? — and when it dawns on him that this is what his life has been, it’s an irreparable loss.

Ghosh writes mostly about the middle and upper-middle class in this novel, and about the mobility the last century sometimes afforded. Refugees, migrants, and coolies could take advantage of the demand for natural resources, especially the demand that the world wars created (timber, rubber, oil), and become wealthy. By the same token, a natural disaster, a disease, or a war could wipe out a family’s wealth at a stroke. Colonialist exploitation wasn’t limited to the time the power inhabited the country; it left a legacy that lasted for decades, if not longer. Family joy (and there’s plenty of it in this book) is carved around the exigency of what colonialism leaves behind.

This book is about 450 pages long, and it’s highly entertaining. It’s a dramatic page-turner, it’s often funny and tender, and it’s full of characters who are allowed to change and grow. I enjoyed Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy so much, and this was different, but just as good. I really recommend it.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 19 Comments

Norse Mythology

norse mythologyIf you count The Sagas of Icelanders, which you might or might not, this is the fourth work of Norse mythology I’ve reviewed on this blog! It practically deserves its own tag! I’m obviously drawn to this kind of literature — so much darker and weirder than Greek or Roman mythology, which is saying a lot. And Neil Gaiman’s version is fun in its own way and in its own direction, which you might expect.

Gaiman’s Norse Mythology isn’t anything new, by which I mean that he is not creating his own myths or creating new characters or anything like that. He chooses a set of Norse myths, mostly from Snorri Sturlusson’s Prose Edda, and retells them: the creation of the world, licked into shape by a giant cow; Yggdrasil, the world-tree; how Thor got his hammer; several stories of Loki’s deception and how he wriggles out of being punished for them; the death of Balder the beautiful; the horrors of Ragnarok, the end of the gods, with its ship made of dead men’s fingernails. There were only two stories here that were unfamiliar to me: the story of the mead of the poets, made from the blood of a murdered god, and the story of Hymir and Thor’s fishing expedition.

The thing that makes this version fresh is that Gaiman writes these stories as if they were the arc of a novel, with dialogue and character. He’s got his own inner idea of what these gods and giants are like, and they speak from the pages. Some bits of this are more successful than other bits, perhaps because these are not actually his characters. But Thor, for instance, jumps out at you as the genial, not-very-bright god, who wants to solve everything by smashing it. Loki — male and female, of the gods and not of them, weeping and laughing — is… complicated. Freya, whom everyone wants to marry because she is so beautiful, is fed up to here with that business.

This is a very quick read — I finished it in about three hours — and enjoyable if not very unpredictable. I liked A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok: The End of the Gods better, because of the way it weaved her own autobiography in and the way it complicated the reader/reading relationship. But this book was a good reminder of how strange and faraway that world was.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Religion | 9 Comments

Passage

Dr. Joanna Lander is a psychologist with an unusual specialty—near-death experiences. A researcher at Mercy General Hospital, she gets alerted whenever anyone codes and is brought back so that she can interview them quickly about what they experienced. The challenge is getting to them before the renowned Maurice Mandrake whose book, The Light at the End of the Tunnel, has given people what Joanna suspects is a false idea about these near-death experiences (NDEs). His questioning methods lead people right to the same narrative—a sound, a tunnel, an angel, a life review, and a call to return.

Joanna’s research takes a turn when a new neurologist, Richard Wright, joins the staff of Mercy General and asks Joanna to join him on his own research. Richard has been trying to give people non-lethal near-death experiences with drugs so that he can learn what’s happening in the brain in the moments of death and perhaps find a way to help the dying return to life.

This novel has a lot of the elements common to most of the Connie Willis novels I’ve read. There’s a woman and a man brought together professionally and perhaps personally in a pleasant romantic comedy plot. There’s a madcap cast of characters, some of whom are truly grating and some of whom mean well but are intense in a way I find overwhelming. There’s a lot of running around—the hospital is poorly laid-out, and renovations make certain floors off-limits so that there’s never a straightforward path from one place to another. And there’s a tendency for some ideas—the ER is dangerous, the cafeteria is always closed—to get run into the ground.

Despite all of this, I enjoyed this book. The central characters—not just Joanna and Richard, but their friends, patients, colleagues, and test subjects—are likable people. And even the exasperating characters are mostly decent folks.

But the book’s real pleasure is in the story. This story took some turns! The first big turn is when Joanna herself decides to become a test subject and experience an NDE. Where she winds up is a shock to everyone, especially Joanna. From there, much of the book is Joanna trying to understand her experience. Richard send her back into the NDE again and again, and each time she uncovers something new. She digs through the accounts of other patients and test subjects to see if there experiences were like her own—or not. For a time, the book develops a kind of repetitive rhythm, but I liked that because each repetition brought some new information to mull over.

And then the book takes a totally new and entirely unexpected turn. Truly, it was one of the biggest narrative shocks I’ve encountered in years. From there, the investigation continues, but new questions have emerged. Although the book could have been shorter—it’s almost 600 pages—I was really into the story the whole time.

If you’re wondering whether Willis takes up a position about the afterlife, I think she lands in a place where people of many different beliefs could be comfortable. The book’s focus is on the science, on what happens in the mind and body in those last moments. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for more than one understanding of what goes on. The ending is pleasingly ambiguous, leaving readers to imagine more than one possibility. It’s a good way of handling that very big question.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 10 Comments

The Red-Haired Woman

When Cem, the narrator of this novel by Orham Pamuk and translated by Ekin Oklap, was a boy, his father, a political activist, left his family. Cem and his mother were just barely getting by, but Cem had big dreams of becoming a writer someday. To fund his education, he decided to take a job digging wells in a small town outside Istanbul. There, he finds a new father figure in Mahmut, the well-digger.

Mahmut is severe with Cem, rejecting his stories and cautioning him against going to see the performances of traveling theatrical troupe that was staying in the town. But the Cem had become obsessed with the red-haired woman who was part of the troupe and couldn’t stay away.

The novel follows Cem through his time as a well-digger and then into adulthood, when he’s haunted by his brief relationship with the red-haired woman and the memory of his final moments with Mahmut. But he moves on and becomes a successful engineer and has a happy yet childless marriage. Now, aside from his business, he’s obsessed with the complimentary stories of Oedipus, the Greek king who unknowingly kills his father, and Rostan, the Persian hero who unknowingly kills his son.

This is the first book by Pamuk that I’ve ever read, and I understand that it’s not his best. Reviews have been mostly mixed. I did enjoy the writing very much, though. The chapters detailing the tedium of well digging managed to hold my interest, and I appreciated the descriptive prose. The presentation of the various father-son stories was sometimes heavy-handed, but I cared about how it would all turn out. And the end of Cem’s time with Mahmut comes as a jolt and a shock.

Where the novel falls down, however, is in its title character. The red-haired woman does have a name, but we rarely hear it. She’s barely a person at all. I suppose her non-presence reveals something about Cem, who tells her story. And what it reveals is not particularly unusual, even if it is distasteful.

The problem is that for most of the book, the red-haired woman doesn’t even seem necessary to the story, which is mostly about fathers and sons. Every time she turned up, I got irritated. Her role changes by the end of the book, where she is given more agency and presence, but the revelations about her and about the novel itself make the narrative’s earlier treatment of her seem implausible—or ingenious. I’m not sure which.

It’s hard to sort out all of this without getting very meta and sharing some spoilers, so don’t read any more if you want to read this book and don’t want to know the secrets revealed at the end, when the red-haired woman finally gets to speak.

In the final section of the book, we learn that we’ve been reading a book by the son of Cem and the red-haired woman. In the book, he’s trying to work out his own feelings about the death of his father, Cem. So this means the whole objectification that occurs early in the novel is actually the son’s objectification of the mother. And this idea works if you look back at the story of Oedipus. But is the son writing his mother the way he sees her or the way he believes Cem saw her? It doesn’t reflect well on Cem—that’s for sure. And the woman gets the last word, which is satisfying.

But I wonder if we’re even meant to notice any of this. Not having read Pamuk before, I don’t know how well he usually writes women. Male writers objectifying women is nothing new, but I hope this web of narrators means he’s attempting something more interesting.

I was interested enough in the narrative possibilities and the writing to be willing to read more Pamuk, so I welcome any recommendations you have!

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

A Trick of the Light

trick of the lightThis is the seventh of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache books, and it finds us back in the Québecois village of Three Pines, after the explosive events of the last two novels. Aftershocks from those events are still affecting the characters, and the book’s main theme is forgiveness. When is forgiveness possible, and when is it unthinkable? When is it presumptuous, selfish, or even manipulative merely to ask for forgiveness? When, on the other hand, is forgiveness the only thing that can save a life?

I once saw a reviewer describe Three Pines as “rather like Brigadoon if Brigadoon had a nonstop crime wave.” This made me laugh out loud, because the contrast between the utter, cozy perfection of the small village and the closeness of its inhabitants on the one hand, and the… what… something like fifteen recent murders on the other, is somewhat striking. We all want to live in Three Pines, but I suggest investing in a good home security system.

A Trick of the Light focuses on Clara Morrow, a brilliant artist who has been in her husband Peter’s shadow for years but suddenly finds herself a celebrity with a solo show at a major museum in Montréal. There’s a party that night in Three Pines, and the next morning, there’s a dead body in Clara’s garden. It’s Lillian Dyson, a woman who used to be close friends with Clara until she wrote a scathing review of her art. When it comes out that Lillian was a recovering alcoholic in AA, trying to make amends for some of the damage she’d caused by other vitriolic reviews of struggling artists, motives for the murder proliferate. Who couldn’t forgive Lillian?

There are a lot of good things about this book. Penny’s characterization of recovering alcoholics is fairly surefooted. Her portrait of the cracks in the Morrow marriage is good, too, and has been several books coming; this arc is probably the most interesting one to me. I’ll also be interested to see how the relationship between Gamache and his second in command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, plays out. Penny is deft at building our interest in these characters over time. She always writes well about landscape and food. My complaint about her prose still stands, though. Reviewers often talk about her “eloquence” or her “fluid, graceful” prose, but I can’t see it. She loves short, choppy sentences and repetition, often putting a single word alone on a line. Here’s an example, pulled at random from the second chapter (we are at Clara’s solo show, looking at the pictures):

Some were clustered close together. Like a gathering. Some hung alone, isolated. Like this one.

The most modest of the portraits, on the largest of the walls.

Without competition, or company. An island nation. A sovereign portrait.

Alone.

Wait, I don’t get it. Was it the only picture on that wall? Or what?

So besides some stylistic quirks that I can’t unsee, I quite enjoy Penny. If you’re looking for a not-quite-cozy mystery that is more interested in the redemptive psychology of its characters than in their grim downfall, definitely try this series.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 4 Comments